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 the shape of leadership

Reaching and Retaining the Young

Is there hope for this generation?

Ed Stetzer on February 13, 2018

Depending on what you read, it seems churches are hemorrhaging young adults. One survey says 86 percent of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return.

Others say we are the most unchurched generation ever.

The problem is that both statements are untrue.

Of course, if you are a mainline Protestant, unfortunately things still don’t look so great. But for evangelicals, affiliation is up. Among regular churchgoers in the U.S., the share of young adults (ages 18 to 29) attending mainline Protestant churches declined from 4 percent in 1972 to 0.5 percent in 2016. During the same period, evangelical representation within that demographic nearly doubled, from 6.2 percent to 12.1.

So, why are evangelical numbers up?

Well, the fact is that some churches are successfully reaching and keeping young adults. Obviously, most of them are evangelical, but that does not mean that most evangelical churches are reaching young people — most are not.

According to the General Social Survey, less than 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. are attending religious services weekly.

In a book I co-wrote a few years ago, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches that Reach Them, we looked at unchurched people between 20 and 29 years of age and churches that were connecting with them. Among the 20- to 29-year-olds we surveyed, 77 percent said Christianity is more about organized religion than loving God and loving people. Some 58 percent said the God of the Bible is no different from the gods of other world religions such as Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.

We all know that to last and thrive with gospel energy, aging churches cannot simply remain in a vacuum. This would condemn them to a slow, entropic death. Christianity needs external momentum and activity. Churches must reach and retain the younger generation to see the gospel continue generationally as it has for 2,000 years.

So, is there hope?

Yes! In fact, there is enough good news to have incredible hope for the future of the churches in the U.S. and abroad, especially as it relates to reaching the younger generation. The following statistics are for people surveyed between the ages of 20 and 29:

  • 82 percent agree that when a person dies, his or her spirit continues to exist in an afterlife
  • 81 percent agree that God, a higher or supreme being, exists
  • 66 percent agree that Jesus died and came back to life
  • 63 percent agree that they would attend a church that presented truth to them in an understandable way that relates to their life now
We need to be the people who welcome young adults with open arms.

These statistics reveal that those under 30 are not as closed to the gospel as some in the Church say. Many younger people are quite open to learning more about who God is. Spiritual interest, combined with over two-thirds of the population believing in the physical death and resurrection of Christ, shows us that there is much openness to the gospel among the younger generation.

However, there is still a deep skepticism of the Church. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Moving ministry outside the walls of the church — from rows to circles and in homes and coffee shops — helps reorient people to the true nature of Christianity. It is not about a building, a budget or committees. Rather, the work of ministry centers on Christ and what He has done for us.

So how do we reach and retain the young?

The most important statistic from our research is that 89 percent of people aged 20 to 29 agreed with this statement: “If someone wants to tell me what she or he believed about Christianity, I would be willing to listen.”

Churches that are healthy, growing and reaching the lost are engaging in dialogue with those who do not yet know Jesus. These churches are listening to the concerns of the lost, and affirming their humanity and dignity by allowing room to doubt and question. This happens in the context of community, but there are many other factors for churches that will reach the unchurched and dechurched.

There is not enough space in this article to go into great detail on each, but let me briefly share the nine attributes of churches we saw that were reaching younger unchurched people.

  1. They worked at creating deeper community, seeing relationships as central to church life.
  2. The churches were making a difference through service — showing how the Christian life leads to serving the hurting.
  3. The churches were intentionally leading young adults to experience worship.
  4. Contrary to some myths, they were not de-emphasizing teaching, but they were delivering strong content.
  5. Not surprisingly, they were connecting with young adults through technology.
  6. The churches worked hard at being cross-generational. Not all the attendees were young adults.
  7. Authenticity was a key attribute. They were not slick; they were real.
  8. Leadership was done with transparency, where people were a valuable part of the process.
  9. Finally, team leadership was the norm. People shared the leadership and the load.

The fact is, churches are reaching young adults every day — just not all churches. I want my church — and your church — to be among those that are successful in this crucial area. To accomplish that, we must reach out to a generation that is open.

We need to be the people who welcome young adults with open arms. Churches are doing it every day — and yours can, too.

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